Panel at LASI 13

I participated in a panel discussion in the last session of the Learning Analytics Summer Institute at Stanford University. The session helped recap the week-long summer institute and provided ideas about how the learning analytics community could move forward over the next year.

Video (24 minutes long) here. Play around with the player settings to get a full-page view.


Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about the Ivy League in 1 Table

dartmouthThe data are from Bruce Sacerdote’s 2001 paper in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, “Peer Effects with Random Assignment: Results for Dartmouth Roommates”. Note that these students graduated Dartmouth more than 15 years ago, meaning that there may be significant change in some indicators. But overall some intriguing patterns emerge:

  • Average GPA after four years is 3.31. I would expect this to be slightly higher today (due to generalized grade inflation in the Ivy League), maybe around 3.4.
  • Average SAT score was 1324/1600 (this is before the writing section was added to the SAT). At least one student was admitted with an SAT verbal score of 360 (so there’s hope for us all). I suspect that these SAT scores aren’t as astronomically high as Americans might expect.
  • Most students were ranked as among the top-10 (absolute, not percent) students in their high school graduating class (though about 38% of students did not report high school rank).
  • 11% of students had attended private schools. This approximates the US average of 10%.
  • Only 1% of students smoke (self-reported). This is much lower than the US average: in 2005, 24% of 18-24 year old’s smoked in the US.
  • 60% of students like to stay up late.
  • Average high school GPA was 3.56 (I would expect that this number has increased as well, since applicant numbers are increasing and universities have become concomitantly more selective).
  • 59% of incoming students had drank beer occasionally or frequently within the past year (self-reported). I don’t question the number, but it’s seems high nonetheless–for most students, drinking is illegal until age 21.

QuickReads on the FDA

(5.1) Dirty Medicine by Katherine Eban

Eban recounts an incredible story of how a reluctant whistleblower won millions of dollars after exposing fraud at a Ranbaxy–major generic pharmaceutical manufacturer–which had passed off unsafe drugs by faking test results for years. The kicker? The whistleblower just wanted to make sure that unsafe drugs were out of circulation–but whether that has happened is unclear.

“Remarkably, Ranbaxy is in a stronger position now in the U.S. than it was before its entanglement with the FDA. By the end of 2012, it was the fourth-fastest-growing pharmaceutical company in the U.S., both by sales and number of prescriptions. Much of this growth can be attributed to sales of its generic Lipitor…. Ranbaxy has survived one disaster and punishment after another. As one incredulous employee put it, ‘We don’t know why we’re still in business.'”

The key here is how lax the FDA was throughout the entire process. Rather than taking Ranbaxy medicines off the shelves after initial claims of fraud were proven true, the FDA only shut down a small number of Ranbaxy plants. Meanwhile, the multi-year investigation was grinding-on glacially behind-the-scenes. Further, other divisions at the FDA gave Ranbaxy approval for new generic drugs, an obvious mistake. And at the end of the day, the FDA’s settlement with Ranbaxy means that nobody goes to jail.

The House had launched an inquiry into how the FDA handled the Ranbaxy investigation, but “[t]he congressional inquiry into the FDA petered out over the years….[Congressional] investigators interviewed the FDA inspectors who went to Paonta Sahib [plant] and asked them a simple question: Would they feel comfortable taking Ranbaxy drugs? ‘Every single inspector that went to India said they would never take a Ranbaxy drug,…like eight out of eight.’

“They were not alone. One by one, each of the former Ranbaxy executives Fortune interviewed had determined, while still at the company, to stop taking Ranbaxy drugs.”

I don’t know if the FDA has enough resources to carry out the work we entrust to it. But whatever the problems in the agency, they need to be fixed, and the first step is probably to bring in a new commissioner.

(5.2) “Children Are Dying” by Alexandra Robbins

Robbins exposes an unlikely problem for the US in the 21st century: simple generic drugs needed for preemies and other desperately ill patients are in extremely short supply in the US. There are few manufacturers for these drugs (parenteral nutrients, or PNs), and as these manufacturers have had to take manufacturing plants offline in recent years for upgrades/renovations/fixes, shortages have resulted. The FDA for several years exacerbated the problem by going after these firms for quality issues without taking into account how supply of PNs might be affected.

More fundamentally, the FDA has dragged its feet on (1) approving new PN formulations which are in wide use across Europe (similarly, the European Medicines Agency approved sublingual immunotherapy years ago, while American patients still receive painful shots. And Europeans have access to more effective sunscreen formulations which have still not been approved by the FDA–after nearly 20 years); and (2) allowing imports of European or other PNs. Particularly in times of need, it seems ridiculous not to allow drugs which are approved in Europe to not be used in the US.

MCR Ballot in St John’s

One of the great advantages to living in St John’s College is that graduate students can stay in college accommodations throughout their time at Oxford. First-year graduate students are allocated a room by the College office, but later-year graduate students select a room in a process run by the MCR. The process is described in this document:

Since I will be finalist (in my last year) next year, I was given a spot on the first ballot. I was 28th to pick, so to prepare I went ahead and rank-ordered my preferred rooms in College (up to 29). I’ve listed below my choices, along with the actual order of rooms chosen on ballot one (I left out some rooms, including on on Woodstock Road and Leckford Road, where I didn’t want to live). A few comments:

  • A lot of graduate students value (1) en-suite bathrooms, and (2) excellent kitchen facilities. Neither is terribly important to me. Rather, I prefer space (I study with books sprawled across multiple tables), large windows, sunlight (so west- or south-facing orientations), and location (I wanted to be on St Giles Street, nearer to the business school). This meant (as I had hoped) that my room preferences were pretty different than what other students wanted.
  • One factor that I hadn’t counted on was that a number of students ranked about me chose to stay in their current rooms (particularly in Kendrew Quad) even though “better” rooms (eg with west- or south-facing windows) were available, often right next door or across the hall.

QuickReads on the Roma in Europe

I’ve run across a number of articles recently on issues surrounding the Roma population in Europe. These include:
(4.1) The New Roma Ghettos: Slovakia’s Ongoing Segregation Nightmare by Aaron Lake Smith
(4.2) In Its Efforts to Integrate Roma, Slovakia Recalls U.S. Struggles by Andrew Higgins
(4.3) Lunik IX: A Short Documentary by Artur Conka

Racism against the Roma seems surprisingly strong and entrenched across Europe, to an extent I hadn’t previously appreciated before reading these pieces. The Roma population presents many simultaneous social, cultural, and economic challenges for policy-makers; these challenges, combined with general apathy among Europeans write large means that problems have simply festered since the collapse of Communism.

In my mind, Europe’s Roma challenges today mirror in some ways the US’s treatment of Native American peoples. The percentage of the population is similar (1-2% in both cases), economic deprivation is similar, and a large part of the problem in both cases may be due to cultural mishmash. That is, Plains Indian and European Roma were both groups who weren’t necessarily settled in one spot but rather moved around. A process of settlement was forced upon Indian populations in the mid-1800s, but this process is ongoing for Roma populations. The US could serve as a template for what works and what doesn’t.

The fact that Roma populations aren’t geographically concentrated in certain regions but rather sparsely spread out across Europe, means that their political representation is diluted. [This speaks to a larger problem in modern democracies. The tendency for individuals to no longer be tied down to a single geographic area means that our representation systems, which are based on geographic representation, need to be changed. One way to solve this is to have more at-large elections at state or national levels.] Indeed, since Roma populations often cluster in countries which are defined by majority ethnic groups (Slovakia for the Slovaks, Hungary for the Hungarians, etc), an “us-vs-them” mentality seems to have arisen between majority ethnic groups and the Roma. Breaking this down will be a long-term challenge.

The challenges presented by the Roma are deep-seated and somewhat intractable. Strong political leadership will be required over many years to implement policy solutions. A simple first step would be to afford Roma groups more political representation, so that they can contribute directly to the policy discussion. For example, cities should use geographic districts (rather than at-large districts) to make sure that Roma are represented at the municipal level. The European Parliament could allocate a number of seats (3-6) to be elected at-large by Roma from across Europe. This would help reduce the paucity of Roma political representation.

Another possible step is to improve vocational education options across Europe. Good models for vocational education exist in Germany and Denmark and could be copied in other countries. Vocational schools may encourage more Roma to stay on in school for longer periods of time, while also introducing these Roma into the formal employment sectors of their home countries.

I’m still shocked at the discrimination that Roma face in Europe. At a minimum, stronger anti-discrimination laws need to be passed if only to serve as a signal to other people that discrimination is no longer socially accepted. Artur Conka, a Roma and director of (4.3), writes in the Huffington Post: “For all the problems in the UK, I feel incredibly lucky to be treated the same as everyone else in this country. Never would I be refused a seat in a restaurant or feel discriminated when applying for a job in London, but last time I visited Kosice I was refused service in a shop simply because I am Roma. I can brush it off and go back home to London, but the people who live in Lunik IX face this sort of discrimination every day.”

QuickReads on St John’s College

(3.1) The Canterbury Quadrangle by Howard Colvin

St John’s College was established in 1555 in what is now the Front Quadrangle, which had been built piecemeal in the 1400s for what was St Bernard’s College. St Bernard’s, a Cistercian college, faced financial difficulty during Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536-1541), thus allowing for the eventual establishment of St John’s College on the site.

Space was very limited in the College, and a new library (now the “Old Library”) was built between 1596-1598 to create more space for books and to open more space for accommodation. The Old Library was eventually incorporated into the new Canterbury Quadrangle, built by the benefaction of William Laud from 1631-1635. Laud, who had served as President of St John’s, had become Chancellor of the University of Oxford in 1630 and Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633. The cost of construction was over £5,000 (over £10 million today), and how Laud could have afforded this amount remains unclear.

The Canterbury Quadrangle was the site of a great feast, hosted by Laud, shortly after it opened. “[In September 1636 Archbishop] Laud made [Canterbury] quadrangle the setting for a grand entertainment of the King and Queen to celebrate the reforms and benefactions for which he had been responsible as Chancellor of the University… After inspecting the quadrangle the King and Queen were escorted to the new wing of the library, where they, the Elector Palatine, and Prince Rupert sat down to a dinner at which … ‘all the gallantry and beauties of the Kingdom seemed to meet’…. Vast quantities of provision were consumed. Bucks, does, oxen, sheep, rabbits, capons, ducks, pheasants, turkeys, swans, and quails poured in, many as gifts from Laud’s friends and supporters all over the country… Even so, the whole entertainment … cost the astonishing sum of £2,666, equivalent to nearly half the cost of building the quadrangle. The single most expensive item was the £540 paid to [the King’s confectioner]… for this occasion the confectioner modelled the entire hierarchy of the university: doctors, professors, canons, masters, and so forth, in paste and marzipan  so that… ‘the ladies water’d (’bout the mouth) to see and tast so sweet a Universitie’.”

£2,666 is roughly £5 million today (at 2% annual inflation).

St John’s College, and the Canterbury Quadrangle, played a role in the English Civil War. “During the years 1642-6, when Oxford was a Royalist stronghold, many colleges were partly taken over by courtiers. Christ Church housed the King and his household, Merton the Queen. At St Jonh’s three room in the Canterbury Quadrangle were requisitioned by ‘the Earl of Devonshire’. This was William Cavendish, fourth Earl of Devonshire, who had been with the King in York in June 1642…”

Modifications were made to the Canterbury Quadrangle over the years, as needs and tastes changed. One of these modifications included converting the accommodations from double- to single-occupancy. “By the eighteenth century ‘chumming’ or sharing was no longer regarded as acceptable, and every [apartment in Canterbury Quad] was reorganized to provide a sitting-room and bedroom for a single occupant.” Presumably, as Oxford transitioned from educating the clergy to educating the aristocracy, the wants of students changed. Single-occupancy is still the norm across Oxford; at St John’s there are no shared accommodations.

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